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THE IMPLICATIONS OF THE CENTRAL AMERICAN IMMIGRATION CRISIS

Benedetta Piva, Reetinder Kaur Chowdhary, SOUTHCOM Team; Karen Giraldo, Neoclis Soteriou, Sophie Provins, NORTHCOM Team

Week of Monday, May 17, 2021


A Large Group of Central American Migrants[1]


Citizens of countries across the Central American region, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are fleeing to neighboring countries and the United States. Violence, crime, corruption, and a lack of economic opportunities are some of the causes for this exodus. However, the governments of Mexico and the United States have tried to curtail the influx of refugees. The refugees are vulnerable to being exploited on their journeys as well as contracting the COVID-19 virus. Meanwhile, in the United States in 2020, former President Trump’s policies contributed to an increase in anti-immigrant sentiments and hate crimes. Thus, it is imperative that US government officials take stock of the situation and help mitigate the crisis to ensure the security of both Americans and the refugees.


There are many reasons why Central Americans are leaving their countries and seeking asylum in the United States. The Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is affected by ongoing violence, endemic crime, economic instability, and rooted corruption. Also, in the last few years, the area has been highly impacted by climate change. It suffers from droughts, which have become longer and more severe of late, which impacts the agriculture in the region.[2] This will impact not only the people involved in agriculture as a livelihood but also the general populace. The region also experiences frequent cyclones and hurricanes causing destruction of lives and property. The area has been strongly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated pre-existing issues such as high homicide rates, pervasive crime, and a very fragile public health sector.[3] It is highly probable that this situation has led to increased anxiety and insecurity for people living in the Northern Triangle, causing even more migrants to move northwards. Indeed, it has become almost inevitable for many individuals to leave their home countries and move north, as a consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the violence, and the economic crisis affecting the area


Approximately 500,000 Central Americans have left their countries so far, and over 300,000 have been internally displaced as of October 2020.[4] The majority of them, especially women and children, are seeking asylum in the United States. Poverty, violence, and corruption are the top factors causing this refugee crisis. The NCA (the North of Central America region which comprises El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) region is one of the western hemisphere’s most impoverished regions.[5] A majority of Guatemalans and Hondurans live below the poverty line, and many of them are employed in the informal sector.[6] Thus, they have no social safety net and are likely to suffer the most when health concerns like the COVID-19 pandemic arise. This curtails the economic opportunities available to citizens and thus forces them to look to other countries to build a better life.


Violence is rampant in the region. Transnational gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (M-18) are greatly responsible for the high homicide rate in the region (18.4 percent in 2020).[7] Gender-based violence and child gang recruitment are also likely why many women and children are fleeing the region. Government corruption, which has been reflected in the region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, further contributes to the helplessness of most Central Americans.


Refugees from Central America tend to travel by land to reach their desired destination. Those headed to the United States do so via Mexico all the way to the US-Mexico border. In most instances, refugees travel in groups, which have come to be frequently referred to as caravans. Traveling in groups is generally safer, especially for women, children, and other vulnerable groups that are at high risk of sexual violence and exploitation. Since migrants mostly travel by land, it is highly likely that the various cartels and other criminal gangs operating throughout the region will try to abduct them for extortion, recruitment, or sexual slavery. As a result, it is likely that migrants will continue to travel in large groups when seeking to enter the United States. As a consequence, both US and Mexican border control authorities must adjust their practices in order to efficiently cope with this trend.


All of the countries in the Northern Triangle encounter exhaustive socioeconomic and infrastructural struggles that make recovery highly impossible. Since the early 1980s, these nations have been amongst some of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere due to decades of civil war and political instability. As a result, the civilian population has been left highly vulnerable. It is significant to underlie struggles rummaging across these nations on an individual scale. Honduras is arguably the most poverty-induced nation out of the Northern Triangle, for the poverty rate has reached as high as 48% of which only 11% is from the middle class.[8] The situation in this country has been exacerbated by the level of corruption from President Juan O. Hernandez, as he is constantly neglecting the poor and aiding the rich. In Guatemala, gang violence and drug trafficking persists across most cities, allowing for courts to release and ignore the ongoing issues surrounding these events. In addition, federal aid towards the lower class during the pandemic created chaos and dissatisfaction, incentivizing people to flee northward as quickly as possible. Out of all of those nations within the Northern Triangle, El Salvador faces the highest rate of homicides and is constantly confronted with gang violence from the notorious MS-13. Within the last few years, El Salvador was branded as the highest criminally induced nation in the world.[9] When closely observing the ongoing struggles affecting the Northern Triangle, it appears that fleeing these nations is the most reasonable choice. In essence, financial aid from wealthy nations will not solve underlying issues affecting these nations. What is needed is a change in political policy and social structure, such as combatting institutionalization corruption both within the government and society at large. If not, then the United States will continue to experience a spike in Central American migrants.


Considering that the majority of the Central American migrants are heading to the US, this crisis poses many implications for the country. The Supreme Court upheld a government ruling according to which any asylum seeker entering the US after July 16, 2019 would be denied asylum if they had not sought shelter in a country they had passed through while traveling.[10] This decision is highly likely to have impacted not only people coming from the Northern Triangle, but also those from Venezuela, Cuba, India, and Africa, who travel through many countries before reaching the US-Mexico border. Since the law’s implementation, 945 asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras have been deported to Guatemala.[11] Despite the repeal of this decision by the Biden administration, it is probable that, apart from those from Mexico, the majority of asylum seekers will now be rejected regardless of the grounds of their application. This will probably not discourage migrants from leaving their home countries, but rather encourage illegal crossing, which could further endanger the life of the people trying to access the United States.


The Trump Administration took numerous controversial steps in order to reduce the number of migrants entering the US via Mexico. One such step was Section 4 of the Border Security Executive Order: a wall built on the border between Mexico and the US, which had been a prominent campaign promise. The administration also changed the procedure on how to claim that they were persecuted, with migrants needing to prove that a gun had been held to their head in order to qualify. The detention camps in which migrants were held are allegedly overcrowded and in extremely poor conditions, contributing to the rapid spread of COVID-19. However, due to the steps taken by former President Trump, immigrants or even those who appeared to be immigrants in the US began to witness a surge in hate crimes. In 2019, a Federal Bureau of Investigation report showed that hate crime rates hit their highest point in over 16 years, with the biggest increase being those against the Latino community.[12] The Central American immigration crisis was likely a contributing factor to the success of former President Trump’s popularity, particularly amongst white nationalist groups. Indeed, his presidential campaign had a particular focus on restricting immigration, an idea warmly welcomed by these groups, willing to maintain a demographic majority and dominance of the nation’s public life and culture.


Within the context of this mass exodus, a large number of migrants that have arrived at the US southern border since February 2021 have been minors, traveling both alone and with family.[13] Although former administrations emphasized the practice of family separation at the border, President Biden has vowed to form a task force to reunite over 500 children whose families have yet to be traced. However, despite criticisms from many within President Biden’s party, the practice of family separation remains in effect, though much less frequent. Additionally, he has promised to collaborate with the countries of origin to solve the root causes of migration, addressing development, security, and anti-corruption-related issues. In this context, it is highly probable that American action will be based on mitigating the impact of recurrent food shortages, droughts, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The objective is to address the challenges forcing people to migrate in the first place. Overall, President Biden’s strategy is primarily based on reviving initiatives, such as the Northern Triangle’s Alliance for Prosperity Plan, that were beginning to see traction late in former President Obama’s term as well as undoing policies implemented under former President Trump’s administration. This also includes a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols that were introduced by former President Trump that ordered 65,000 migrants to wait at the US-Mexico border for their court hearings. It is likely that migration to the US will increase during President Biden’s time in office.


Countermeasures that are currently being implemented in order to address the implications of the Central American immigration crisis include efforts by the Biden administration to increase pressure on the government of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to counter corruption and graft within the countries’ political systems. The Biden Administration has argued that corruption and graft were the main factors stunting Central American economies and driving their citizens to migrate.[14] Likewise, the Biden Administration has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian relief to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. President Biden has asked Congress for $861 million to address the causes of irregular migration, within the framework of his $4 billion plan for the region.[15] This injection of American funds is meant to mitigate the impacts of recurrent drought and food shortages, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Both these factors are contributing to the current migration trends from these countries.


The wave of refugees is strongly impacting Mexico as well. To combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mexican government declared that it would close its borders to non-essential travel, and the country’s National Guard and army increased compliance along the southern border with Guatemala.[16] This is highly likely to result in a temporary decrease in migration. However, it is also probable that people will continue to enter the country by hiring human smugglers or through informal border crossing. This will likely lead to small increases in COVID-19 cases brought into the country as human smugglers can easily spread the virus. In addition, Mexican migration to the United States is highly likely to be impacted by the Central American immigration crisis. The measures implemented in order to stop these migrants from entering have also impacted Mexican migrants, so numbers are likely to reduce.


In order to address the implications of the Central American immigration crisis, it is necessary to address the causes for the exodus. As a result, the Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends the promotion of anti-corruption measures coupled with continually increasing pressure from the US towards the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Similarly, the CTG advises the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to implement anti-corruption measures in order to decrease the presence of corruption and graft within the countries’ political systems. Additionally, an injection of US and other foreign financial aid and investments into the economies of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will be required in order to mitigate the impacts of droughts, food shortages, and the COVID-19 pandemic as well as improve the countries’ health, education, and transportation infrastructure. These strategies would likely lead to long-term improvements to these countries’ standards of living, and by extension eliminate the need for a mass exodus from those countries into the US.


CTG’s NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM teams are continuing to monitor the implications of the immigration crisis. They are monitoring the implications of the immigrants themselves as well as the countries in which migration is occurring. The teams are working with the EMH2 team to conduct analysis and investigate the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the migrants. They are also working with the Crime team to detect any patterns or major events that ought to be discussed or analyzed in a future report. Our Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crime and Hazards (WATCH) Officers provide 24/7 analysis on events happening across the globe, including the Central American immigration crisis. Our Threat Hunters are also continuing to identify potential implications of the crisis. CTG will continue to share analytical reports in order to raise awareness of global issues.

__________________________________________________________________

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]A Caravan of Honduran Migrants Traveling to Mexico” by Martin Leveneur, licensed under Creative Commons

[2] How the Climate Crisis is Affecting Central America, The Climate Reality Project, March 2021, https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/how-climate-crisis-affecting-central-america

[3] No easy solutions for tackling the Central American roots of the migration crisis, The New Humanitarian, April 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/4/21/tackling-root-causes-of-migration-crisis-in-central-america

[4] Displacement in Central America, UNHCR, May 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/displacement-in-central-america.html#:~:text=Growing%20numbers%20of%20people%20in,33%25%20as%20compared%20to%202018.

[5] Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle, Council on Foreign Relations, September 2019, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/central-americas-turbulent-northern-triangle?gclid=CjwKCAjwy42FBhB2EiwAJY0yQmVhBNM4V2SL8P0z0mw8Teu70-Uedoa91UrPE9QK3-IXu_eHeOEhkxoCfaEQAvD_BwE

[6] Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2021, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/why-central-american-migrants-are-arriving-us-border

[7] Homicides in the Year of COVID-19: Central America and the Dominican Republic, InfoSegura, January 2021, https://infosegura.org/en/2021/01/21/homicides-in-the-year-of-covid-19-central-america-and-the-dominican-republic-2/

[8] The imperative to address the root causes of migration from Central America, Brookings, January 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/29/the-imperative-to-address-the-root-causes-of-migration-from-central-america/

[9] Ibid.

[10] Southern Border Humanitarian Crisis, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, April 2021, https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/southern-border-humanitarian-crisis/

[11] Ibid.

[12] Hate-Crime Violence Hits 16-Year High, F.B.I. Reports, The New York Times, November 2019, https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2019/11/12/us/hate-crimes-fbi-report.amp.html

[13] Southern Border Humanitarian Crisis, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, April 2021, https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/southern-border-humanitarian-crisis/

[14] Central American leaders resisting Biden’s anti-corruption efforts, Washington Post, May 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/05/10/biden-salvador-guatemala-bukele-corruption-migration/

[15] Harris vows $310 mn US relief as Central America tackles migration, France 24, April 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210427-harris-vows-310-mn-us-relief-as-central-america-tackles-migration

[16] Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2021, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/why-central-american-migrants-are-arriving-us-border



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